Change the World

The Reality of Raising African-American Boys in America

About three years ago, we had a decision to make as a family. Our oldest son’s birthday is August 31st and our community’s cutoff for the school year is September 1st. We had to decide if we were going to hold him back a full year or send him to kindergarten with many of his neighborhood friends.


It was not an easy decision to make. Although he was young for his school year, he was very tall and developed; in the 99th percentile for height and in the mid-80s for weight. In his preschool, he was literally a head and shoulders taller than his peers.

We invested in costly therapy, testing and expert consultation with highly recommended professionals. After almost a month, they came to a recommendation. They suggested we hold him back. As two very lovely women explained their logic to us, a thought crept into my head and came out as a question. “If there’s ever a tussle in the school yard with another boy, won’t being a year older and more physically developed automatically count against him, especially since he’s African-American in a predominantly white neighborhood?”

My husband and I waited for a response, but for several long and very awkward moments none came. Their silence was deafening. Despite having consulted on education matters for fifty years collectively, neither of them had thought of that last question. They attempted to compose themselves but it was clear they had forgotten that the sweet, shy and eager-to-please young boy they had come to know and genuinely like was indeed an African-American male living in the U.S. As parents who aren’t African-American ourselves, we also sometimes slip into an alternate reality as well.

This summer, as accounts from Ferguson, Missouri and other encounters between young African-American men with law enforcement come to the nation’s attention, we are snapped back into reality. I think of the hundreds of adoptive families, LGBT and straight, who have transracially adopted African-American or biracial children. I think of the thousands of biracial biological families. I think of the millions of African-American families.

Despite good grades, accomplishments, pleasant manners, and common sense, many of our sons are seen as aggressive or prone to violence. When they transgress, as kids will always do, they are judged on a double standard. Their white peers are rebellious or “testing out a look” but our sons are somehow programmed for something darker.

Trayvon Martin’s references to marijuana use, his hoodie sweatshirt, the music he listened to, and photos of him flashing pseudo gang signs were seen as evidence of his thuggish character. What idiocy!

I view the Facebook pages of my white high school and college-age nephews and their friends. They dress the same way and listen to the same music as Trayvon. Some even make the same gestures in their Facebook photos, yet no one ever accuses them of anything more than typical rebellious teenage behavior.

The double standard doesn’t end with childhood. The now infamous Cliven Bundy who owed over a $1 million to the US Federal government raised a small army to push federal officers off his land. So-called patriots rose in his defense, some figuratively and some by taking sniper-like defense positions on bridges and roads and aiming assault rifles at federal officers. Yet Bundy was heralded as a reincarnated George Washington by many here in the U.S. Those very same people now people believe that a community grieving over the death of a young man needs to stand down and respect the rule of law.

It’s inconceivable to me that people would think my sons as anything but a sweet little boys, but I know that they have and will continue to do just that. I’d recount examples of women grabbing their purses when my son and I entered an elevator when he was in first grade. Or when my son stepped in as a peacemaker on the playground but was singled out as an aggressor by the adult in charge. She backed down only when challenged by both of the other boys who were the ones actually fighting. Even then, white testimony exonerated my son, not his own. It’s a sobering and maddening list and he’s only 8.

Somehow the “otherness” of an African-American male has disassociated our notion of youthful innocence from our self-protective instincts. We’ve conditioned ourselves to respond to a particular look and react in almost cartoonish fear. Usually, the results are embarrassing but dismissible. However, when law enforcement and other authority figures make the same contortion of logic, the results can end tragically. I don’t propose a solution for any of this here. The legacy of racism in the Americas begins with the exploitation of the slave trade and lives on in the irrational fear of our black and brown young men. It’s too deep and complex problem to be fixed with bumper sticker advice. However, we must find a solution. And fast. My sons are growing up faster than society is changing.

My husband and I dread the day we’ll have to tell our teenage sons that the world will not treat them like their white peers. In any confrontations with the police, we will advise them to be polite to the point of being obsequious and always insist the police call us immediately. Their youthful indiscretions will make them accountable as adults and they will be judged on a different and unfair standard. It is unfair, it is unjust and it is maddening. But it is reality. How can we ask them to understand something we ourselves don’t?

Every family must deal with some unfairness that parents, despite our best intentions, cannot set aside for our children. Fathers must send their daughters into the gaze of a world of uncouth men. Parents of children with special needs deal with the harsh realities of a world not built for their children. Often children facing such unfairness grow up and become promoters of real justice. Perhaps there’s a solace there. For now, we watch the news and struggle to find the right words to explain what it all means to our sons and to ourselves.

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